2023 is ‘the year of efficiency.’ Here’s how to drive productivity with leaner teams (Hint: Ignore conventional advice)

Illustration by Studio Muti

Layoffs unleash a toxic and potentially corrosive brew of emotions across a company, including among workers who survive job terminations. Those employees are bound to experience guilt, fear, anger, and, especially lately, disillusionment over the often secretive and faceless ways in which some corporate leaders have cut jobs.

Meanwhile, managers find themselves in a tricky predicament, wherein they may share the same sentiments as their direct reports but must wade into the collective morass and somehow keep work humming along. The pressure to keep teams productive after layoffs might feel even more heightened as companies target middle management for future layoffs. The thrust is that—in what Mark Zuckerberg has dubbed “the year of efficiency”—companies will likely expect managers to do more with fewer people and resources, never mind that studies say it’s usually impossible.

But team leaders who choose to compartmentalize their emotional response to layoffs and adopt a soldier-on mindset will find that approach almost certain to backfire. Motivating direct reports post-layoffs is anything but simple or intuitive, and accepting that might be the most constructive first step a manager can take.

Consider why productivity falls

Wayne Cascio, professor of management at the University of Colorado Denver Business School, urges companies worried about post-layoff productivity to consider one of the key reasons that efficiency sinks after corporate downsizing. The dip isn’t just the result of fewer bodies doing the same work. When morale tanks and employees are afraid, they often become both risk-averse and self-absorbed, which has damaging consequences.

Fear and anxiety are especially problematic for firms because they impede experimentation and innovation, leaving a company languishing. Who wants to raise their hand to suggest something new if the cost of failing might be their livelihood?

The natural inclination to turn inward and fret over one’s circumstances can also drive employees to fix up their résumés and look for a lifeboat during the workday rather than stay productive in the job they already have, Cascio explains. Companies should anticipate a 50% surge in what HR specialists call voluntary turnover—people quitting for other jobs—in the year following a layoff. Employees most likely to leave are those with options in the labor market—a.k.a., your top, super-productive performers.

To counteract these reactions, Cascio urges managers to “give people hope,” advice that sounds simple but is difficult to execute, he admits. Essentially, it’s on managers to explain why the company will be better off as a smaller organization or why a team will prevail after a restructuring. “That’s what people want to know. What’s the plan?” That said, managers should also solicit advice from their teams about how best to work going forward. Are there meetings managers can cancel or processes they can streamline? See employees as a source of the solution, not the problem, says Cascio.

Cross-training employees is another tangible way to minimize fear and rejuvenate workers’ spirits. Adding skills to your employees’ repertoire will help them feel valued by the company and could prevent departures. But Cascio warns that for this to work, it has to be authentic, not an internal marketing ploy.

What’s notably missing from Cascio’s advice are snazzy productivity hacks. Rather than managing people’s time, adopting tricks, or gamifying work, he recommends managing based on outcomes and clear metrics while ensuring employees have the resources to hit their assigned goals. Managers should say, “This is my job: If you’re not getting those resources, I need to hear from you, then we’re going to leave you alone.”

Avoid two enemies of productivity

Dawna Ballard, professor of organizational communication at the University of Texas at Austin, shares Cascio‘s view that morale ought to be a manager’s top concern for employees after layoffs. Rather than try to squeeze more out of employees, she says the better approach is to “fill people up.” Not only is that the most humane and empathetic response, but it’s also going to benefit the organization: Employees who feel inspired, rested, and secure are more likely to perform well.

After layoffs, the knee-jerk reaction is for companies to discourage people from discussing what happened. “They really fear communication,” she explains, “and [leaders] should know that no research across time has ever shown that less communication is better.” By contrast, more communication typically leads to better outcomes, so managers can ease employee anxiety by giving them the time and space to speak freely.

While this includes creating time for candid conversation between managers and employees—perhaps adding 15 minutes to one-on-one meetings—it shouldn’t stop there. Colleagues are likely to feel less burdened when they can discuss layoffs face-to-face with peers and process their feelings, says Ballard. Whatever gossip they hear from coworkers about the company’s future may be dark, she adds, but it won’t be as gloomy as what they’re bound to imagine if left in isolation.

Ballard’s studies of public sector social workers charged with protecting children have convinced her of the need for in-person bonding when workers experience trauma. “The highest-performing teams were the ones that physically got together and were able to share their fears, cry,” she says. “That is what actually allowed them to do their jobs.”

To be clear, Ballard is not suggesting that companies force people back to an office if that’s not what they want for themselves. Instead, she thinks companies should subsidize or pay for employee dinners and outings; invite them to travel and gather in hub cities; and thus give workers a safe space to talk freely outside management’s gaze. The employer investment would be relatively low, while the payoff could be high.

Ballard also warns against sending employees into overdrive by piling onto their workloads or indirectly signaling an expectation to work longer hours. Don’t let worried workers push themselves into the burnout zone, either. Research across industries has shown that increasing work hours to improve productivity has the opposite effect, Ballard underlines. The change happens quickly—in weeks, not months—so managers must model strong boundary-setting and explicitly push for their teams to avoid overwork. “Play the long game,” she says.

Meet the moment

Yasmene Mumby, a leadership adviser and founder of the Ringgold firm, concurs. In fact, she believes managers under pressure to boost productivity with reduced teams need to protect their employees “at all costs.”

“This is an opportunity for you to practice leading in a way that might counter what your senior leaders expect of you,” she says. More than anyone else, managers understand the pressures their employees face at work and home, and have the clearest sense of how extra work would impact the team, says Mumby. The stress might not only lead to lower productivity but swift exits. Resisting overburdening employees, on the other hand, could engender loyalty. “When you as a senior leader take into account people’s burnout and people’s overwhelm, other team members see that and say, ‘Ah, maybe I can trust you,’ or ‘Ah, maybe this is a place where I can see myself staying because when our team was going through a hard time, and we lost capacity, they did not inundate us with more work,’” she says.

Not every manager will feel secure enough to hold a difficult conversation with senior leaders for fear of losing their jobs. If that’s the case, or if an attempt to push back fails, managers should be transparent with their teams and share their views on the situation. This is a sensitive period, and appearing to betray your team’s trust will add insult to the layoffs’ original injury.

Check out this global study on cultural fitness by HR research firm i4cp, in partnership with Fortune.

This story was originally featured on Fortune.com

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